Election 2008: Is this about issues or personalities?

Jim Vandehei is at it again. The former WashPost-er, now with Politico.com, teamed up with John Harris last week to throw together the inestimably weak 6 things Palin pick says about McCain. (1. He’s desperate; 2. He’s willing to gamble — bigtime; 3. He’s worried about the political implications of his age; 4. He’s not worried about the actuarial implications of his age; 5. He’s worried about his conservative base; 6. At the end of the day, McCain is still McCain.) The piece is not worth the bandwidth it consumes, assuming points which are demonstrably false and leaping to bizarre, non sequitur conclusions. There was a certain erratic egotism to the piece, as if everyone reading it knew to assume as a given that the writers had any clue of that about which they were writing.

Again. Today, Vandehei teams up with Jonathan Martin to post the equally bizarre McCain, Palin push biography, not issues. Their entire thesis rests on a single statement from McCain campaign manager Rick Davis:

When John McCain’s campaign manager said last week that this presidential election “is not about issues,” it wasn’t a Freudian slip. It was an unvarnished preview of McCain’s new campaign plan.

In the past week, McCain — with new running mate Sarah Palin always close by his side — has transformed the Republican campaign narrative into what amounts to a running biography of this new political odd couple.

Davis uttered those words an interview with Vandehei’s old employer, the Washington Post. Let’s add some context, straight from the WashPost’s Chris Cillizza:

“This election is not about issues,” said Davis. “This election is about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates.”

Davis added that issues will no doubt play a major role in the decisions undecided voters will make but that they won’t ultimately be conclusive. He added that the campaign has “ultimate faith” in the idea that the more voters get to know McCain and Barack Obama, the better the Republican nominee will do. [emphasis my own]

Davis was asked by host Chris Wallace about his “not about issues” quote, so cavalier tossed around without context by Martin and Vandehei, on the last FOX News Sunday


WALLACE: Rick, do you want to focus on personality or a composite view of the candidates, not issues, because of the fact, for instance, that we’ve got 6.1 percent unemployment, the highest in five years?

DAVIS: No, Chris. And what you didn’t — what you didn’t show on the screen was the next sentence, which is the composite view is made up of people’s values. It’s made up of their opinions. It’s made up of their judgment and their principles.

And so then I let — then the next sentence says, “And of course, issues will play an important role in people’s final decision.”

So I respect the fact that the Obama campaign has some kind of a — you know, obsession about Rick Davis. I’ve been the focus of their advertising, and now their candidate seems to be, you know, wanting to attack me more than anybody else. That’s fine. The water is warm. I’m happy to go toe to toe.But to insinuate yesterday on the stump that somehow those comments implied that I was going to, you know, indicate that he was going to have these Muslim connections or that he had these radical relationships is absolutely out of control. I mean, what is this guy trying to do?

Davis did not promise an issueless campaign; to say otherwise is to perpetrate a fraud against Rick Davis and the campaign, which is being done daily by Obama. By others? Only if they are, knowingly or unwittingly, doing David Axelrod’s bidding.Write the Martin/Vandehei duo:

To win, McCain advisers believe the Republican nominee must distance himself from Bush and even his own party. That isn’t easy work.

But they got a solid clue on the best way to pull this off from none other than Barack Obama. They saw how his generalized message of change resonated. So while Obama was busy soft-selling the change portion of his campaign at his convention, McCain was busy stealing it — and busy downplaying the sort of issue-by-issue laundry list Obama delivered in his State of the Union-like acceptance speech.

Politics is also about masking your weaknesses. Let’s face it: McCain is not a policy wonk, especially when it comes to discussing domestic issues. He’s gotten more comfortable talking about issues such as energy because he’s had to this year, but he’s much stronger on the nitty-gritty substance of governing only as it relates to his sense of political honor (how, for example, pork-barreling is tied to corruption).

First of all, McCain’s being doing change and reform since Barry was in bobby socks, so the accusation that he stole the notion from Obama is a negative reality inversion. Change fits John McCain better than it does Barack Obama, who has voted consistently in lockstep with his Dem caucus when he showed up in the Senate to vote. The list of issues in Obama’s speech before the Styrofoam columns in the football stadium was simply an empty litany of wild-eyed statements. There was no substance, no actual promise. The speech was delivered with a wink and a nod because the forum called for something larger than life. There was no “nitty-gritty substance of governing” in that speech. McCain’s recent talk of vetoing pork-laden bills from Congress was, in fact, substantial. Nitty and gritty.

The larger point, though, is that only a fool declares that a campaign is devoid of issues and substance in the first week after a convention, when the candidates are putting the finishing touches on their self-definitions. And it is insipid to tell us that Obama has the substance on the issues when he still won’t let us know what Hopechangehope is supposed to be.

McCain and Palin are drawing bigger-than-ever crowds and leading in the polls, and even the Republican Party as a whole is seeing an uptick in popularity.

Oddly, it’s the vice presidential candidate who seems to be the reason. Does anyone think the convention would have grabbed as large a TV audience without her? Does anyone think voters would be lining the streets and packing crowds without Palin onboard?

This was left out of their 6 things Palin pick says about McCain. Sarah Palin was chosen, in part, to energize the base, to erase an excitement-deficit. The campaign needed volunteers and donors, and people willing to push a yard sign into their lawn. Governor Palin did that.

Oddly, I have to add, it’s the vice presidential candidate who has reinforced John McCain’s seemingly inbred penchant for attacking the status quo, for reform, for change. This was also not one of the “6 things.”

Oh, the essence of the candidates is important, and it is a part of the contest Barry & Joe cannot win. I caught part of Greta Van Susteren’s show on FNC last night. She was in Alaska talking to various people in Palin’s home town of Wasilla. They all called her, “Sarah,” and they related that when she was mayor, her husband Todd was “first dude.” That’s how the people Governor Palin have represented think of her. Joe Biden’s constituents? I can imagine a citizen of Wilmington of Joe Biden as “that senator-guy who lives up there in the estate on the hill. Yeah, we see him every six years. Nice fellow, he is.”

John McCain is third-generation Navy, a pilot, a Prisoner of War. He served his country next as a member of Congress and as a U.S. Senator with a maverick streak. Barack Obama? I don’t know. He was a community organizer, which sounds like a fine thing, and we know he was present often enough in the Illinois State senate, as that’s how he voted. We know he gave a well-received speech at the 2004 DNC and that he somehow squeaked by Senator Clinton in the Dem nominating contests. And we know about Hopechangehope, though not what it is.

I do not know that the McCain camp would attempt to dissuade me from the previous two paragraphs, and that’s a personality narrative which is being built. It is bizarre to think that such things have not always been fundamental to the decision=making processes of voters, perhaps since Andrew Jackson in 1824. (He did win the popular vote that year.)

This will not be an issueless, even if Obama would have felt more comfortable sticking to the vague Hopechangehope. With John McCain and Sarah Palin campaigning on actual records of specific change, that may no longer work for him. Remember, Obama is no longer dealing only with the star struck portion of the Dem electorate; he has to hang onto the “Reagan Democrats” and the “Hillary Democrats,” and he has to appeal to the indie voters of all stripes.

McCain selected a game changer as his running mate, a phenomenon which, by my estimation, had never happened with a veep pick. Do the Democrats even have a potential game changer on their rolls?

Either way, rest assured that no matter what the partisans try to argue, the issues will play a major role in both campaigns. However, unfortunately for Axelrod and friends, so will biography and personality. For whom will we vote? This is the first week after the conventions, as the narrative is built and reinforced.